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Nitrates and Feeding Problems for Horses


Dr. Martin Adams, PAS – Equine Nutritionist for Southern States

Plants accumulate nitrates as a natural process. Nitrogen is absorbed through the roots of the plant and then stores it as nitrate in the stems. This nitrate is later converted into protein in the plant's leaves. Excessive amounts of nitrate can be accumulated in grass pasture or hay as a result of excessive fertilizer or manure application. High nitrate levels can also be caused by prolonged drought or cloudy weather conditions. Nitrate and nitrite can also be present in water from wells and ponds. The only sure way to determine toxic nitrate or nitrite levels is to send in a sample of hay or water and have a chemical analysis performed. The upper safe limit in water for all livestock is 100 mg/liter for nitrate nitrogen and 10 mg/liter for nitrite-nitrogen.

Nitrates interfere with an animal's ability to carry oxygen in the blood. Nitrates are converted to nitrites in the animal's body and forms methemoglobin, reducing the amount of oxygen available for the animal. A high level of nitrate in forage can also cause reduced feed consumption, decreased growth rates, lowered milk production, and abortion. In severe cases, death can occur.

Nitrate poisoning may produce the following symptoms: suffocation, labored breathing, uncoordination, and blue or pale mucous membranes. The most spectacular symptom of nitrate toxicity is chocolate brown coloration of the blood. Other symptoms include diarrhea, frequent urination and frothing at the mouth. Horses can tolerate higher levels of nitrates in hay or pasture than ruminants (cattle, goats and sheep) because research has shown that horses absorb nitrates in the small intestine before they would travel into the large intestine to be converted into nitrites, which are responsible for toxicity symptoms. Ruminants convert nitrogen in the nitrate form into the nitrite form in the rumen, which is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and can quickly cause symptoms of nitrate poisoning.

Following is a chart for determination of acceptable nitrate levels of forage for horses.

Nitrate Percentage
(dry matter basis)
Precautions
2.0 or above Not recommended for horses.
1.0 to 2.0 Not recommended for pregnant mares or growing horses (up to 2 years of age).
Less than 1.0 Safe for all classes of horses.

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